The Graves Mountain Festival Of Music is an annual event eagerly anticipated by fans of bluegrass and acoustic music. The festival takes place the week after Memorial Day, and the lineup for 2019 includes the return of some fan favorites including Larry Sparks, Ralph Stanley II & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Junior Sisk and The Lonesome River Band.
One band making its first appearance on the Graves Mountain stage is The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. The band was given a prime spot in Saturday’s lineup, a rare opportunity for a band’s first appearance at the festival.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys is of the hottest new bands on the bluegrass festival circuit, but as mandolin player and lead singer CJ Lewandowski explains, the band was never intended to be a full-time touring act.
In 2014, Lewandowski was working at Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Sevierville, Tenn. The distillery hired bands to play live music for visitors and asked Lewandowski if he could put a bluegrass group together. Having played with several known groups including Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, Lewandowski had made connections at festivals around the country, so he called on two of his friends: banjo player Jereme Brown and guitarist Josh Rinkel.
“I knew they weren’t playing a whole lot of music at the time,” said Lewandowski. “Both the band that I was in and the band they were in were slowing down a little bit. So I called them and asked if they wanted to have a job playing four or five days a week. They could stay at my house until they get on their feet. It was a steady paycheck.”
Bassist Jasper Lorentzen happened to work in the tasting room at the distillery and The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys was born. The group played as the house band at the distillery for several years, enjoying a rare regular, full-time bluegrass gig.
“It was just going to be us playing music at a distillery and going home every night and sleeping in our own beds,” said Lewandowski. “It was a different way of getting our high of playing music, and we didn’t have to travel three or four hundred miles to play music for people.”
That all changed after a successful appearance at a festival in Alberta, Canada, followed by a European tour that came about from the connections Lewandowski had made as a member of Karl Shiflett’s band. Calls came in for the band to play festivals in the U.S., and its fan base began to increase.
“We signed a contract with RandM Records and we put out ‘Back To The Mountains’ in February of 2016 and then it started growing from there,” said Lewandowski. “We started getting more dates. We quit Ole Smoky and just started concentrating on the road stuff. It just built up. It felt kind of good compared to some of the other bands that we’ve been with, where there was a lot of push to get to this point and sometimes it didn’t work. Everything has almost been offered to us with no thought of doing that.”
An even bigger break came to the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys at the World of Bluegrass festival in Raleigh, N.C., in 2017 when they caught the eye of one of the founders of Rounder Records, Ken Erwin. Rounder is a storied label that has released some of the most significant bluegrass albums in the past half-century.
“Their catalog is amazing,” said Lewandowski. “We love history, and it’s cool to be a part of history. When I was 16, I was listening to The Bluegrass Album Band stuff and I was listening to J.D. Crowe and I was listening to the Tony Rice things. Looking back and thinking holy cow, Rounder’s been part of my bluegrass life since day one.”
The band’s début album on Rounder is due to be released in August. Before signing with Rounder Records, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys had been working on an all-gospel album to follow up their 2016 record. They had to rush the release of “God’s Love Is So Divine” before they could start recording for Rounder, and the result is a heartfelt collection of songs that was inspired by the band’s personal beliefs.
“We had all been talking more about our faith and what we would all like to do before we leave this earth,” said Lewandowski. “We wanted to put out a good gospel record. We wanted to satisfy our souls a little bit, but we also wanted to let people know that we have a lot of roots in gospel music, too. I learned how to sing in church.”
The album also features some special guests. R.C. Fields, 87, is a friend of the band and sings a powerful lead part on their take on Jimmy Martin’s classic “The Voice Of My Savior.” The record also includes an intro to the traditional song “Let’s All Go Down To The River” recorded over 30 years ago with Lewandowski’s great-grandfather on steel guitar and grandmother on lead vocals. It is seamlessly edited into The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ version of the song.
“She died in 1993,” Lewandowski said of his grandmother. “She lived a very short life. She was 50 years old when she passed away, so I didn’t want her to be forgotten so, we brought her out on a CD. She influenced me so much singing, but she didn’t know it. She never got to see me do what I do.”
The members of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are looking forward to their first show at the Graves Festival. Lewandowski considers bluegrass festivals a special connection that is lacking in today’s modern world.
“There’s no personal connection anymore as far as text messaging and Facebook and all that kind of stuff,” said Lewandowski. “People are yearning for something that’s real. I think the festival experience is where people go to get that satisfaction, something that they’re missing.”